Are you looking for a challenging route that combines the beauty of historic cities, ancient ruins and the sheer scale of the Cairngorms National Park with the rough and rugged coastline of the North Sea? Then the Central Belter is the bikepacking route for you.
Spanning no less than 755 miles (1215 km), the route starts and finishes on the beaches of Scotland’s vibrant capital city. Here I propose twenty stages which vary in length according to how hilly each stage is, between 26.3 miles (42.4 km) and 51.7 miles (83.2 km).
You’ll start by tracing much of the Capital Trail, another of Markus Stitz’s routes (komoot.com/collection/902010/capital-trail). This heads south to the Scottish Borderlands to enjoy the Lammermuir Hills, then back toward Edinburgh via the Pentland Hills. Explore the industrial urbanisation, ancient ruins and country parks between Edinburgh and Glasgow, before turning north.
The second half of the route traverses the Cairngorms, taking in much of the Highland Trail 550, Cairngorms Loop (komoot.com/collection/901294/cairngorms-loop) and Great North Trail (komoot.com/collection/904449/britain-s-newest-long-distance-challenge-great-north-trail). It then leaves this part of the Grampians behind to trace the coastline via Angus and Fife.
In Scotland you can wild camp legally thanks to the Right To Roam act (see more at scotways.com/faq/law-on-statutory-access-rights). As you won’t find many accommodation options on the first half of the route, you’ll need to pack your camping kit. The second half has plenty of hotels, guesthouses and paid campsites to choose from, but make sure you book ahead, especially during the summer months.
Like many of the routes in Scotland, your best bet is late spring or early autumn, avoiding the main midge season (and busy tourism season) while still trying to get some of the better weather and drier trails.
I’d really recommend a mountain bike or at least a gravel bike with 40mm+ tyres for this route, as there are some technical sections and tough climbs, made even harder with bikepacking bags added into the mix.
You start and finish the Central Belter on Portobello Beach, which is an easy ride from Edinburgh’s main station, Edinburgh Waverley, or even closer from local station Brunstane. Check before you travel in case you need to book your bike on the train too. Having said this, you can start from wherever you like along the route, with many train stations along the way there are plenty of good options.
Read more about the route at bikepackingscotland.com/centralbelter
The first stage of the Central Belter is a coastal one, leaving the beautiful Portobello beach and promenade in Edinburgh city and tracing the shoreline south to North Berwick. You’ll cover 36.2 miles (58.3 km) here, with a couple of easy climbs to get you warmed up! Leave the bustle and character of the capital city behind as you head south along the promenade to Musselburgh. Here you’ll take the River Esk inland, following a cycleway to the Carberry Estate. If you’re easy on time, do stop a while here to admire the tower and maybe get some refreshments too. Continue to climb up from the estate to your highest point of the day, taking a series of trails nearby Tyne Water that also mark the route of the Capital Trail. From Pencaitland head north back to the coastline, following lanes to Aberlady and Gullane. This last stretch of the day to North Berwick takes you along a series of small back roads and off-road paths, many with spectacular views of the sea and shore. Stop a while on the golden sands of Yellowcraig Beach before making your final approach into the town, where you’ll find a great selection of places to eat and drink, as well as stay if you’re looking for a guesthouse or hotel for the night.
The second stage of 41.3 miles (66.5 km) will take you from the lively coastal town of North Berwick south to the town of Lauder in the Scottish Borders. There’s a little more climbing than descending in the stage over the Lammermuir Hills, which should set you up for some of the hillier stages ahead.Take an easy start to the day heading inland perpendicular to the coast from North Berwick, passing by North Berwick Law and following the tracks of the East Lothian Trail. Take a little diversion when you reach East Linton to visit the beautiful dutch style Preston Mill, if only to admire from the outside.A series of lanes take you south past Pressmennan Woods, as you head directly toward the Lammermuir Hills rising up before you. The lane turns to a rocky gravel track as you start the climb gradually at first, then ramping up to gradients of up to 16%. Passing by Crystal Rig you’ll have earned some incredible views back to where you’ve ridden from today and the sea beyond. Having gained the height, you’ll have to save the descending for later in the day as you retain this advantage and carry on along the hilltops. Rejoin the road near Whiteadder Reservoir and ride from Faseny Water along the dead straight road up to Meikle Law.Rejoin the Capital Trail as you descend down from the Lammermuir Hills by Whalplaw Burn to the town of Lauder, detouring to visit Thirlestane Castle if you still have good daylight and the legs!
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From Lauder to the outdoor lover’s town of Innerleithen, the third stage covers 40.5 miles (65.2 km). The day mostly follows the way of the Capital Trail, another bikepacking route by the same rider, Markus Stitz. The day starts almost immediately off-road, climbing gently out of Lauder heading South on singletrack and ancient drovers roads. Descend off Kedslie Hill down to the river Tweed, passing through Melrose past the historic Abbey, then around Tweedbank. Start to climb up away from civilisation again, past Cauldshiels Loch, close to the summit of White Law. You’ll then ride past Lindean Loch before descending down to the town of Selkirk. Three Hills Coffee comes highly recommended for a pit stop! Next up, you start the biggest climb of the day up to the famous Three Brethren summit. Continue West by Broomy Law, Brown Knowe and Hare Law as you approach Innerleithen, the final destination for the day.Contour around Taniel Hill, passing the black rated downhill trails in this area, and take a detour off route to descend into Innerleithen, a real outdoor town well used to housing mountain bikers, hikers and climbers. There’s a great Cafe at No 1 Peebles Road - if you miss it in the afternoon make sure to pop back for breakfast!
With most of the climbing at the start of the stage, this 26.3 mile (42.4 km) leg of the Central Belter is shorter ride through pretty Peebles to the edge of the Pentland Hills.After leaving Innerleithen, the road gives way to unpaved doubletrack on the Southern Upland Way at Glen House Castle, and after Glenshiel Banks the trail becomes the steepest at up to 18 percent. Be prepared for a short but tough hike-a-bike here. After a little more singletrack, join the drovers road over the top of Birkscairn Hill to mark the summit at 2170 feet (661 meters).Enjoy the descent of Gypsy Glen down to Kirkhope Law, on the Cross Borders Drove Road, which is part of a blue rated mountain bike trail network. You’re soon in Peebles, a great stop off point for resupply and a meal. After Peebles, climb past Hamilton Hill, then a steeper singletrack section past Kilrubie Hill. Next up is Drum Maw, before passing into West Linton on Lyne Water to finish the stage.
From the Pentland Hills to the Firth of Forth, this 30.5 mile (49.1 km) stage takes you back past Edinburgh as you complete the first, southern loop of the Central Belter.Start your day by taking the Carlops-Balerno MTB trail across the Pentland Hills. You’re already quite high up so there’s little climbing to start, as you pass North Esk Reservoir. You’ll reach the highest point next to Cock Rig, before joining the Great North Trail and starting to descend down off the hills to rejoin roads at Kirknewton. Ride over Camps Viaduct as you carry on north, over the River Almond, and then through Broxburn and Winchburgh. After a section on the towpath along the Union Canal, you turn off to the Firth of Forth at Abercorn.Following the southern shore past Blackness Castle, the last section is a great traffic-free stretch to Bo’ness, where you’ll find loads of places to stay, eat and drink at the end of this stage.
From Bo’ness on the Firth of Forth to Falkirk on the Forth and Clyde Canal isn’t far, but there again today’s 41 mile (74.1 km) route is anything but direct! To link the two you’ll meander through the Kinneil Estate, back toward Blackness, then down through Beecraigs Country Park, Muiravonside Country Park, then along the Union Canal toward the Falkirk Wheel.Skirt around Lithlingow to start the stage on a mix of tracks and quiet lanes to head south to Beecraigs Country Park. There’s a great network of trails here to enjoy as well as the visitor centre. Muiravonside Country Park is the next highlight of the day, with trails following alongside the River Avon and past the mighty Avon Aqueduct. The next stint takes you west past California (yes, really), to Canada Wood, your next fun ribbon of singletrack trails. Before making your way into the centre of Falkirk to finish the stage, you’ll head further west to pass the impressive Falkirk Wheel boat lift and the Kelpies. Then it’s just a simple ride along the Forth and Clyde canal into the town, where you’ll find many places to stay, eat and drink at the end of this stage.
Stage 7 is a funny one, looping three times to finish almost back where you started! Despite this, you’ll ride 32 miles (51.4 km), past the Kelpies and the Canal Basin, through Plean Country Park, and then finishing back on the Forth and Clyde Canal near Bonnybridge.It’s a gentle start to the day as you follow the Forth and Clyde to the east to the famous Kelpies, a sculptural not to the horse-powered heritage of Scotland. From there you can follow the tracks alongside the River Carron to the west through the flat fluvial valley.You’ll turn northwards now, heading for Plean Country Park. Enjoy the traffic-free trails through Tor Wood, then through the network of trails in Plean before turning back south through Dales Wood to Dunipace. Head west over Darrach Hill next, starting your biggest climb of the day. After summiting here, descend a short way down to the river before tackling the second peak up to Tak Ma Doon Road Viewing and Picnic Area. The rest of the stage is either flat or descending, starting with the long road descent to Banton Loch. Drop down onto the Forth and Clyde Canal here heading east to the end of the stage. It officially stops just outside of Bonnybridge, but it’s up to you whether you wild camp near here or head into the town to find a place to stay.
This longer stage of 51.7 miles (83.2 km) will take you from the village of Bonnybridge into the heart of Glasgow city, then to the north to finish in Strathblane on the edge of the Campsie Fells. It would be simple to link Falkirk to Glasgow using the canals, but here you take a different track, running almost parallel to the south, through Castlecary Low Wood, then over Croy Wood which was once an important hill fort. Further along the trail you’ll find the remains of Bar Hill Fort, built in 142 AD for troops manning the Antonine Wall, which was once the north-west frontier of the Roman Empire.The middle section is much flatter as you take lanes to Drumpellier Country Park and ride around Lochend Loch. Trace the edges of these green spaces to enter Scotland’s second city from the east, then picking up the towpath along the Forth and Clyde once more to head north-west away from the centre. Transfer onto the River Kelvin and pass by Dawsholm Park on your ride north, before passing through central Milngavie and into Mugdock Country Park. It’s quite some climb now after such a gentle day through the towns and cities, but the open expanses of green make it all worthwhile. From the top at Carglas plantation, finish the stage with a brilliant descent down through the forest on fire roads to the end of the day in Strathblane.
The ninth stage consists of 45.7 miles (73.6 km) across Stirlingshire from Strathblane to Dunblane, via Stirling city. It’s one of the hillier stages with three major climbs, but the views from some of these high vantage points will make you fall in love with this often overlooked county. Ease into the stage with the flat and easy National Cycle Route 755 cycleway to Lennoxtown before heading north straight into the slopes of the Campsie Fells. With steep gradients of up to 20%, take the paved Crow Road up onto the fells, descending over the other side to Endrick Water. From here a small lane takes you east past Carron Water Reservoir, climbing more gently this time but to the same altitude. You’ll reach the top just before North Third Reservoir, where you circle around through the forest on off-road trails, before a steep descent off the hill into Stirling city itself.After perhaps a pit stop for something to eat and resupply, continue north out of the city over Abbey Craig Hill, passing the spectacular Wallace Monument. This next hill is the sharpest of the day, up through Yellowcraig Wood to Dumyat, a well known and hiked hill summit with a characteristic silhouette from the Stirling. After a steep singletrack descent off of the top, follow the gravel tracks and lanes to the end of the stage in Dunblane, where you’ll find many places to resupply and spend a night if you’re not camping out in the wild.
A shorter stage of 27.5 miles (44.3 km) takes you to the halfway point in the Central Belter, at least in terms of the number of stages completed. There’s only one major climb today up through Glen Ample, and it’s a really spectacular one. After a few days of pretty urban riding, you’re now heading north into more remote territory. Start by leaving the town of Dunblane along the Doune Trail cycleway. After a short main road section, lanes will take you parallel to the busier road to Callander, where you’ll find some ace lunch spots including Fat Jack’s Diner.Join the Callander and Oban Railway cycle path next, passing the beautiful Falls of Leny along the Garbh Uisge before crossing to follow the water on the road. You’ll ride up the eastern side of Loch Lubnaig, first on the road and then up into the woodland on forest trails. Climb as you follow the Ardchullarie Burn up to the watershed and then down the other side alongside the Burn of Ample to Loch Earn. Find a good place here to wild camp for the night ready for the second half of the Central Belter, or choose from a few hotels and B&Bs in Lochearnhead itself.
Start the second half of your Central Belter challenge with a 40.8 mile (65.7 km) stage from the shores of Lochearnhead to the beautiful Loch Lyon, a wonderful place to spend a night in the valley of Glen Lyon. You’ll follow in the tyre marks of many intrepid bikepacking racers and tourers that have ridden these trails, which make up part of the Highland Trail 550 route. After the first hill up and over to Killin and the edge of Loch Tay, the route is pretty flat for much of the stage.After following the River Dochart through Crianlarich, you’ll ride the trails part the Lochan of the Lost Sword, supposedly home to Robert Bruce’s metre-long claymore sword. After passing through the official start point of the Highland Trail 550 in Tyndrum, you’ll start to climb the first technical trail.The final climb of the day is the gravel doubletrack pass that takes you from the Bridge of Orchy valley over to Glen Lyon, and the blue waters of Loch Lyon. After tracing the northern shores of the loch, find a good place to camp here and spend the night in this breathtakingly expansive valley.
A much shorter second stage of 26.3 miles (42.4 km), the way from Loch Lyon to Kinloch Rannoch is another belter (forgive the pun)! Most of the stage tends gently downhill, before one big, steep climb from the Bridge of Balgie to reach Loch Rannoch. This really is the heart of the Grampian Mountains.The stages starts just as the first finished, continuing along the glorious doubletrack gravel road that skirts the northern shore of Loch Lyon. From the loch, it then follows the River Lyon gradually downhill on the road, now sharing the route of the Great North Trail and the Highland Trail 550. Take a while to rest when you reach Glenlyon and enjoy the offerings from the Tea Room at the Post Office. Places like these are few and far between up here in the Highlands, so make the most of them while you can! Now you will start the climb, the mountain pass dirt road, over moorland and then start to descend down through forest to the shores of Loch Rannoch. It’s a pretty remote area so you’ll need to wild camp again nearby if you’re planning to stop for the night at the end of this stage.
After the shorter stage previously, you’ll be back up to covering 40.6 miles (65.3 km) on this third stage to Kingussie. Start the day with a big climb after leaving the adventurer’s village of Kinloch Rannoch, up and into Glen Garry on wide gravel doubletrack roads. As you approach Loch Garry you can often find this part of the valley is very wet, so some boggy hike-a-bike might be required! Passing alongside the western edge of the Loch, reach the road and take the cycleway that runs parallel to your right. At Dalnacardoch cross the road to join the same route as the Cairngorms Loop, heading north now to climb up into the Forest of Atholl. You’ll follow Edendon Water up this climb, before peeling off to the right at the edge of Loch an Duin under the mighty hill of An Dun above. You’ll reach the top further along this trail on the way to Loch Bhrodainn. After rumbling along the tops past Loch an t-Seilich, the gentle descent to the end of the stage begins. Follow the River Tromie heading north to finish the stage. You might wish to divert into Kingussie town to find resupply or a place to stay, or alternatively there are plenty of great wild camping spots nearby.
You’ll fall head over heels for the Cairngorms with today’s 29.6 mile (47.6 km) stage in the heart of the National Park, taking in many of the iconic landmarks featured in the Cairngorms Loop. The first half of the stage is characterised by a very long but gradual climb, but as you know, what goes up must come down in the second half! After the first little lump to join the River Feshie, follow alongside heading south on the gravel roads and you’ll come across the beautiful Ruigh Aiteachain Bothy. Do poke your nose in and have a look, as you never know when you might come back to stay here! Continue to climb alongside the beautiful Feshie river, summiting near Eidart Falls. Enjoy the gentle descent now, then take the road heading north when you reach the golden gravel road T-junction at Geldie Burn. You’ll still be descending along these gravel roads, following the River Dee this time, until you reach the waterfalls at the Lin O’Dee. You can certainly see why it’s such a popular spot! The last leg of this stage continues to follow the Dee now on a paved lane which delivers you into Braemar. Why not treat yourself to a night at the Hostel here, a great chance for a proper wash and bed for the night?
This fifth stage is the longest of them all at 46.6 miles (75 km), so you’ll be glad of an early start and resupply from the town of Braemar today.You’ll head east to start in this stage, then south toward the coastline which forms the second half of the Central Belter. With one exception, the stage is pretty flat, but you must make sure you leave some fuel in the tank for the Mount Keen climb near the end of the day. Follow the River Dee to start the stage to the east, then leaving the road to take tracks through the woodland behind the peak of Meall Alvie. As you ride through Grathie on the road, make sure you at least look out for views of the majestic Balmoral Castle, or even go in to visit the estate if you have time to spare. Take the Ballater to Gairnshiel Circular route on back lanes to the town of Ballater, another great place to resupply or stop for a cuppa. Here’s you’ll cross the Dee to enjoy more of this Circular route as it turns to a traffic-free cycleway, all the way through the Muir of Dinnet Nature Reserve. This is where you’ll cross the Dee once more to start heading south, following the same way as the Scotland Trail. A network of gravel roads will lead you into Glen Tanar National Nature Reserve, passing the humble little Half Way Hut at the side of the forest trail. You’ll be gently climbing now as you follow the Water of Tanar, out of the reserve and then directly toward the slopes of Mount Keen. Fearsome gradients here mean that it might be easier to push rather than ride your bike up here. After passing Mount Keen and the standing stones, enjoy the thrilling descent down the other side on the gravel Mounth Road all the way down to Loch Lee, then down the road along the River North Esk. After a short off road section on the other side of the river, cross back again to your stage end in the quiet village of Tarfside. Phew!
From the edge of the Cairngorms National Park in little Tarfside, this stage takes you over 39.7 miles (63.9 km) to the North Sea, finishing on the cliffs by Red Castle.With five stages already in the legs, you may be pleased to hear that this stage features more descending than climbing! In fact, the first half of the stage all tends downhill gently.From Tarfside, cross back over the River North Esk to follow the gravel road, then onto the road following the same path as the Great North Trail. You’ll pass through on Edzell Woods and around Luthermuir before reaching Marykirk. Here you’ll find an even smaller back lane to lead you to the sea, joining the coastline at the mouth of the Esk, before passing the first beach on the edge of Montrose. This is a great place to rest and enjoy the town and seaside for a while, with plenty of places to fill up on lunch and supplies! Here we’ve included a little detour as you pass the Montrose Basin crossing to visit the wildlife centre. It’s well worth it to play with the telescopes and see what migratory birds you might spot in the marshlands. Back tracing along the tops of the cliffs on the coastline, head south for the last part of the stage and a small climb. You’ll summit past Dunnidald Den woods, then down the lane to Lunan Bay to end the stage. Enjoy a coastal wild camp here (though be wary of the tides) or carry on to Arbroath if you’re looking for a roof for the night.
Stage 7 is the first full stage of coastal riding, hugging the Angus coastline for 45 miles (72.5 km) to Leuchars in Fife. You’ll cross the Firth of Tay from Dundee to Newport-on-Tay as you enjoy another flatter day. Bid goodbye to the beautiful Lunan Bay as you start to head south along lanes past Ethie Castle and then onto tracks into Arbroath. Why not stop a while at the impressive Signal Tower by the harbour here to take a look around the museum?The next section on National Cycle Route 1 is very flat, from the cycleway past Elliot Beach and Carnoustie. You’ll cut off the corner to avoid Barry Buddon military camp to Monifieth, following the Firth of Tay into Dundee.The Tay Road Bridge takes you across the water (look out for the cycle lane down the middle) to Newport-on-Tay, where you’ll continue along NCN 1 to Tayport. Head east into Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve, past the old ice house and through Tentsmuir Forest. Take a diversion from the cycle route here to reach your end town of Leuchars via tracks rather than roads. Here you’ll find a few places to stock up on food and perhaps find a place under a roof for the night.
On your journey along the coastline towards Edinburgh, this 30.6 mile (49.3 km) stage will take you through the golfer’s mecca of St Andrews, past limestone coastal caves and past the ruins of Newark Castle. From Leuchars pass the Eden Estuary local nature reserve and take the beautiful road to St Andrews, home to a prestigious university and the Links Golf Course. Take the B9131 out of the town past the Castle Golf Course, heading slightly inland before turning back toward the coast to Crail. From here take the Fife Coastal Path, passing the impressive limestone arches and caves on the elevated beach before Anstruther. Continue along the Fife Coastal path by St Monans on the flat trail, where you’ll see the ruins of Newark Castle by the sea. You’re nearing the end of the stage at Elie and Earlsferry, where you can find many lovely places to eat and stay the night near the golden beach, or alternatively opt to wild camp nearby.
In this penultimate stage, you’ll leave the coastline to head inland to Loch Leven in Kinross, riding a total of 35.3 miles (56.8 km). After a more gentle few days along the seaside, you’ll turn back into the hills today. Start by following the coastline to Dumbarnie Links Nature Reserve to the west, along the bay and turn inland at Lower Largo. You’ll follow a narrow lane to Pilmuir Wood and then a few tracks to Kennoway. More lanes will then lead you north-west through Star and Freuchie to Falkirk, on the edge of the Lomond Hills Regional Park. You’ll cross through this beautiful region on a lane that becomes a dirt road, passing between Ballo Reservoir and Harperleas Reservoir after a very sharp climb out (and a short set of steps) of Falkland. This is the high point of the day, so next you’ll drop down past Glenlomond to the shores of Loch Leven.Your best bet is to find a spot you like alongside the loch here, if you’ll be staying the night. Alternatively Kinross is only a short diversion where you can find plenty of facilities and places to stay too.
There are plenty of sights on your way into Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh on the final stage, with 42 miles (67.6 km) leading you to the Portobello Promenade. The first half of the ride is quite hilly, but then after dropping down to near sea-level it’s much more gentle. Head south to start, through Ballingry and Lochore Meadows Country Park. It’s a lovely spot to enjoy some breakfast or just take in the beauty of Loch Ore. Take the road through Lochgelly and then through the golf course into Cowdenbeath. Ride through Cuttlehill Woods on forest tracks, then up and into Cullaloe Woods, passing the temple. After riding the tracks past the disused quarry, start to descend off the hillside to Aberdour of the Firth of Forth, pass the ruins of Aberdour Castle. Follow National Cycle Route 76 (Berwick upon Tweed to Stirling) through Dalgety Bay and Inverkeithing to take the Forth Road Bridge across the Firth of Forth. You’ll be hoping it’s not too gusty when you cross here!Pick up the John Muir Way now to look back on the Forth Bridge, tracing the coastline down into the city of Edinburgh. You’ll take the Water of Leith path through the bustling centre to finish on Portobello Beach. Enjoy a well deserved meal and a celebratory drink on the seafront and reflect on what you’ve just achieved. Phew!